For some teens and young adults, mental health in the winter can be a significant concern. While the season includes a break from school and more time with family and friends, it can be stressful, as can dealing with the psychological effects of cold weather.
This article touches on challenges facing youths and young adults during wintertime and features self-care advice for your child.
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Psychological Effects of Winter and Cold Weather
When it comes to mental health in the winter, the psychological effects of cold weather and the season itself can be significant. They include depression, anxiety, overstimulation, family stress, and holiday stress.
One of the most serious psychological effects of cold weather and winter is seasonal affective disorder (SAD), a type of depression related to changes in seasons. In the winter, the days get shorter, resulting in less light during the daytime. This can lower vitamin D levels, which may negatively affect mood, and alter a person’s circadian rhythm, the body’s natural sleep and wake cycle that usually lasts for about 24 hours. When that rhythm changes, it interrupts the cycle, which can cause moderate to severe depression that can last for up to six months.
When a teen or young adult is depressed, symptoms include not enjoying favorite activities and feeling overwhelmed. Depression can also affect their relationships and quality of life. Just the idea of getting up in the morning can make them anxious.
It’s important to note that depression can be a precursor to suicidal thoughts* or self-harm. If your child is depressed, seek help from a family doctor, psychiatrist, or therapist.
Anxiety can affect mental health in the winter not only because it’s a symptom of SAD but also because teens and young adults may feel anxious about a variety of issues. For example, they might worry about final exams at school, especially if they’ve been struggling with a specific class. Or, they might feel uneasy about spending more time at home if family members are fighting a lot.
Another reason anxiety is one of the psychological effects of cold weather is because chilly temperatures, snow, or even blizzards could interfere with favorite outdoor activities, such as walking, running, or bicycling. Exercise can help young people deal with anxiety, so if they have to skip those activities, it could be more difficult for them to counteract anxious feelings.
For those with sensory issues, cold weather conditions such as low temperatures, wind, and snow — and wearing heavy clothing to protect against all of that — could cause overstimulation. When a sense such as touch is overstimulated, it could lead to sensory overload, resulting in anxiety and even panic attacks. This can make maintaining mental health in the winter challenging for teens and young adults living in places with harsh conditions.
During wintertime, families tend to be together more often because school’s out for a few weeks and potentially due to weather conditions. With increased interaction — and more opportunities to push each other’s buttons — can come more family fighting. Whether teens and young adults are part of the drama or just observers, this type of conflict can take a toll on them, especially if the weather prevents them from getting out of the house to get a break from the tension.
Holiday stress can also affect a teen or young adult’s mental health in the winter. The extra social engagements, such as visiting relatives or attending parties, as well as shopping for gifts and perhaps preparing for special school performances, can be overwhelming. Finances can also be a source of stress if family members are having difficulty paying for holiday expenses like presents, trips, or meals at fancy restaurants. The result can be a less than joyful holiday season for some.
Winter Self-Care for Young People
It’s important that your teen or young adult practice self-care so they can address the psychological effects of cold weather and promote good mental health in the winter. You can support them by using the tips below.
1. Help your teen or young adult rest, exercise, and eat healthy
During this time of year, teens and young adults may cut back on — or even skip — habits and routines that can help mental health in the winter, including getting enough sleep, exercising, and eating healthy.
- Getting enough sleep: Encourage your child to get adequate rest each night. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends eight to 10 hours of sleep for teens ages 13-18 and at least seven hours for people 18 and up.
- Exercising: The World Health Organization has physical activity recommendations for multiple age groups. For example, adolescents up to age 17 should average at least 60 minutes per day of moderate- to vigorous-intensity exercise. If winter weather makes your child’s favorite outdoor activities difficult to do, suggest indoor alternatives. This could include yoga or Pilates at home or working out at a fitness center.
- Eating healthy: Encourage your child to eat whole foods, fiber, seafood, lean poultry, and fresh fruits and vegetables. Avoid packaged and processed foods such as microwavable meals. They contain food additives and preservatives that can disrupt healthy bacteria in the gut, which can promote good mental health. It’s also helpful to limit sugar intake.
2. Help them avoid substance use
If your teen or young adult has struggled with substance use, remember: There’ll likely be more opportunities to access and use drugs and alcohol during the holidays. Help them resist that temptation. Remind them they can have plenty of holiday fun while sober — the kind they’ll want to remember. Activities could include a photo scavenger hunt, an ugly sweater exchange, a baking or cooking party, or ice skating.
If your teen or young adult needs extra support, you can connect them with a therapist or contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration hotline, a treatment referral and information service.
3. Create healthy routines
Creating healthy routines is important to supporting mental health in the winter. These routines include getting enough rest, exercising, and eating healthy, but they go beyond that. Encourage your child to start or continue doing activities that help them stay mentally healthy, such as spending time with friends, reading, creating art, or listening to or playing music.
4. Make time for friends
It’s helpful for teens and young adults to talk to and hang out with friends who care about them, especially when they need a break from wintertime stressors. While busy schedules can make it challenging to connect with their favorite people, remind your child to keep in touch as best as they can. Let them know their friends may be stressed out too, so they’ll appreciate your child’s friendship and support.
5. Make New Year’s mental health resolutions
December is often the month when people reflect on the year that’s passed and look toward the future. It’s a good time to ask your teen or young adult if they feel mentally healthy and prepared for the year ahead.
Talk to your child about what’s worked for them in the past year, and discuss what they’d like to work on next year. Make mental health resolutions to help them reach their goals. Ideas include starting a gratitude journal, meditating, and taking a break from social media. Now is the perfect time to embrace healthy change, promoting mental health in the winter — and beyond.
Transitioning Back to School After Winter Break
As their time off from school draws to a close, teens and young adults might worry about transitioning back to campus. It can be tough to resume the habit of getting up early, going to class, and doing homework. Talk to your child about their concerns, expressing empathy for what they’re experiencing. You could say something as simple as, “I know this is tough for you, and I’m here for you. I want to help.”
You can also brainstorm how to address their concerns. For example, if they’re worried about waking up in the morning because they’ve been staying up later than usual, suggest they move bedtime back by 15 to 30 minutes each night until they’re back to their normal time.
Make sure to also talk about the positives of going back to class, such as seeing classmates again, resuming favorite extracurricular activities, or getting closer to graduation. They may find it helpful to make a list and keep it on their phone so they can reference it whenever they’re feeling nervous.
If your child is in college, remind them to use campus resources when needed, such as an academic adviser or counseling office. For those living away from home, make sure they have crisis text line phone numbers in case of a mental health emergency. The NAMI Teen & Young Adult Mental HelpLine, a peer-support service providing information, resource referrals, and support to teens and young adults, could also be helpful. Your child can text “Friend” to 62640 or call 800-950-6264.
Winter Mental Health: Wrapup
While winter can bring plenty of joy to teens and young adults, it can also lead to several challenges, including depression, anxiety, overstimulation, and family and holiday stress. By understanding the psychological effects of cold weather and the holiday season and encouraging self-care, you can help your child improve their mental health in the winter and get ready to return to school.
*This article is for informational purposes only and not to be considered medical advice. If your child is having a mental health emergency, contact the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline for immediate support by calling or texting 988 or chatting online. You can also text HOME to 741741 ─ the Crisis Text Line ─ from anywhere in the country to talk with a trained crisis counselor.
Embark is the most trusted name in teen and young adult mental health treatment. We’re driven to find the help your family needs. If you’re looking for support, contact us today!